by David Regenspan
David Regenspan is a former editor and congregational rabbi who now writes full time. He has been a contributor at the Bread Loaf and Colgate writers conferences, and has published articles, reviews and poetry in Seneca Review, The Bookpress (Ithaca, NY), the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin and elsewhere. He has written two novels and is at work on a third. "Possum," his first published short story, was previously a finalist in a Glimmer Train very short story contest. You can read his blog at willandword.blogspot.com.
Taking his truck out to shoot a possum had not been Raoul's idea of how to fill his Sunday, but his daughter Isabella begged him. She had been driving home from the religious group she met with every week—some kind of Tibetan thing—and took a route through the state forest. Suddenly she heard a thud and, though she saw nothing, thought that she had hit an animal. She pulled over.
"You swear you'll come right away, Papa?" She was calling from her car, sounding like she was five years old again.
She said it was a possum and it was still alive. It was standing on its hind legs by the side of the road, covered in blood. She thought of turning around and trying to hit it again, but was afraid she would only make things worse. Raoul knew that his daughter was hurting more than the animal. He told her to drive on home. He would put the animal out of its misery.
"Possums are slow, stupid creatures, 'Bella. Everyone hits one sooner or later. I'm on my way. Just go. Don't look at it again."
It took him no more than twenty minutes to get there. He had no trouble finding the wounded possum. It swayed at the edge of the asphalt like a drunken old man waiting for a break in traffic. It truly was a godawful sight. He got his twenty-two from the gun rack and placed the barrel a foot from its head. The shot echoed through the woods as if it had come from far away.
He called Isabella on his cell to tell her that the victim was out of pain. She should just put it all out of her mind and do something nice for herself. Maybe get that second nose piercing she had been talking about. Go to the movies. Call someone she hadn't seen for a while.
"Papa, don't be lame. Thanks again for putting the possum down. It's such a relief. But I think I should feel pain about it for a while. This is already giving me bad karma. If I just forget about it, then that's worse karma."
"Where'd you learn that? Your weird Zen church?"
He regretted it the moment he said it. His wife Carol, possibly soon to be ex-wife, had long called him Mr. Sarcastic. He heard his daughter take a slow breath. But she otherwise kept her feelings to herself. Maybe her ashram or zendo or whatever it was had taught her that too.
"'Bella, I'm sorry. I was out of line."
"It's OK, Papa."
"I still say don't beat yourself up. It was an accident. That's all."
"Sure. Papa, what's up with you and Ma? I'm just so anxious. I was thinking about you living alone in that trailer and that's when I hit the possum."
"Maybe it was subconscious. You really wanted to hit me."
Another long breath.
"You know, Papa, there is a fine line between self-deprecation and self-pity. Since you're spending so much time alone lately, maybe you could use it to do the work of thinking about your life. If I can do it, so can you. I think I ought to hang up now. Maybe I will take your advice and go out and take my mind off things. The possum, and you. Talk to you later."
He was glad that Isabella ended the conversation with one of her pronouncements. It was her way of inoculating herself.
He dropped his cell phone into his front pocket. Here he was, six feet from a dead possum on a lonely road. In a rusty old truck with a rifle in the back. A daughter who barely put up with him, a wife who didn't. It was like a country-western song. All that was missing was the faithful dog at his side, preferably a very large one, but Raoul had never liked dogs.
He started the engine. As he began to shift into drive, he realized that he did not have the slightest idea where he wanted to go next. Back to the trailer, down the hill to town, across the continent to California—it all seemed the same. All you had to do was say one sentence to your wife that could never be taken back, and this was the result. Sameness. For the first few days after Carol threw him out, he had felt like he was floating above himself, that even his own body was arbitrary and he might as well jump into another one. He was not quite that bad now, but really, where was he driving to next? A person was supposed to know these things.
He switched off the truck. The sound of an engine continued, now coming from behind. Raoul glanced in the rearview. A white minivan was getting close and looked as if it was slowing. This was the part where a woman half Carol's age but with twice her experience was supposed to lean toward her open passenger window, give Raoul a view of her heaving bosom, then ask in a smoke-cured voice if he needed assistance. But the person who pulled up alongside was his supervisor from work, Pete, who was also his friend.
"You OK, Raoul?"
White minivan. Of course. Pete's weekend vehicle.
Raoul nodded, rolling down his window.
"Had to come out here and put down a possum. My daughter hit it and it didn't die. What are you doing out here, Pete?"
"On the way to help my brother, who seems to have managed to damage his aluminum gutters while trying to repair his roof. He can wait. How are you? Didn't get much of a chance to talk to you this week."
"Didn't want to talk. Pete, you have anything for me at the office? I could come in."
"It's the weekend staff's turn, Raoul. And you look like shit. What's happening on the home front?"
"What home front?"
"That answers my question, I guess. Look, Raoul, you look like you need some relaxation. Go to town. Find a movie or something."
"Funny. That's the advice I just gave Isabella. I was sitting here wondering where to go next when you showed up. But, you know, I think I was about to decide not to go anywhere else. Sitting here out on a rural road with the woods all around me is nice. If I had been out here instead of home last Sunday, then I probably wouldn't be here again now."
"That doesn't even make any sense."
"Sure it does. Sunday morning a week ago I told Carol I didn't love her anymore. And the strangest part of it is, both of us know it's a lie, but she still threw me out and I still felt like I deserved it."
Pete gave Raoul a kind of slack, deadpan look, by which he always meant that what he wanted to say was beyond words. He had wattles and a balding scalp, but middle age had not dimmed the wild blue of his eyes. Women still liked him because of that.
"I'm pulling over. Wait a minute."
Pete parked his van ahead of the truck and got out. He had to yank his pants up over his gut. The man was going to seed, but he was still married and a decent father. Raoul was just a few years younger, yet in much better shape. He still had a full head of brown hair and a thirty-five inch waist. But what good was it doing him lately?
Pete walked to the side of the road, just ahead of the truck where the dead possum lay. He bent over and peered at it, made a face, straightened up.
"You almost blew this critter's head off. Just leaving it here?"
"I figure it counts as road kill."
"I suppose. Join you?"
Pete opened the truck's passenger door and climbed in. Raoul could feel the chassis shift grudgingly as the big man plopped himself into the seat.
Pete picked up a used paper coffee cup from the floor at his feet, looked at it with distaste and dropped it again.
"You know, Raoul, life is built out of many little gestures. If you would start by throwing away your trash, who knows where that might lead."
"Tell you what, Pete. I'll go back to your trailer, throw the cup in the trash, then wait to see what miracle happens."
"Be nice to me. I'm your boss. And I hope you're taking care of my little vacation palace."
"You are my supervisor, though you rarely act like it. And of course I'm taking good care of your depressing little double-wide. Are you sure I'm not needed today?"
"Quite sure. Raoul, you didn't tell me the part about saying to Carol that you don't love her."
A crow called hoarsely from somewhere above them in the trees, a second answered. Maybe they were talking over divvying up a possum lunch. Raoul stared at the dusty rear hatch of the minivan and the bumper sticker that said Acadia National Park. There were loads of little stickers from outdoor spots around the country. For the past few years Pete had been big on camping with his sons. Before that, the trailer was his private getaway until, Raoul suspected, Pete's wife laid down the law. Pete sometimes talked about either selling the trailer or getting a tenant, but never seemed to get around to either.
A car zoomed past, then another. Then a third, whose driver gave three short honks. Raoul did not bother to look to see who it was.
"Red Subaru. What your daughter drives, isn't it? Whoever it is just turned around to come back this way."
Raoul raised his eyes and saw Isabella through her windshield, giving them a little wave. A few moments later she pulled over on the opposite shoulder and opened her window.
"That Pete with you? Hello, Pete. It's your van, then. Papa, I had this urge to come back to the scene of the crime. Then I saw the truck and the van too, and I had this thought that you were having a hard time killing the possum and called in professional help, so I almost kept going. Where is it?"
Raoul indicated the direction with his thumb.
"'Bella, it's dead. Why torture yourself?"
His daughter smiled and shrugged.
"Maybe she wants some closure, Raoul." Pete spoke loudly enough for Isabella to hear. "Let her see it. She's a big girl."
Isabella was already out of her car. She crossed in front of the truck, heading straight for the possum. Raoul expected at least a moan, but his daughter just stood there. Her head was bowed, hair hanging over her cheeks, and her hands were folded. She was like a mourner at a family grave, praying for someone who died many years ago. Raoul watched her for what felt like a long time. Her face was at once so young and so ancient that he felt his eyes burn with tears. Then something very old and dark shifted within him, a hibernating thing turning over in its sleep. His tears began to flow heavily. The thing began to make a keening noise. It was coming from his own throat.
Suddenly Isabella was standing at his window stroking his head, and Pete's beefy arm was around his shoulders. Raoul wept more, then some more, then more again. After that, he felt his breathing slow, heard Pete asking him over and over if he was all right.
Raoul noticed that Isabella's hand was no longer passing through his hair. He turned to look at her. She held his gaze.
"Papa, this is ridiculous. This is the end. Enough. I'm getting Ma on the phone right now."
Raoul managed to shake his head no.
"Yes. Somebody has to be the grownup around here, and I guess it's me. Pete, stay with my father."
"Of course, dear. What did you think?" Pete kept his arm where it was.
Isabella went to her car, stuck her head and arm through the driver's window, emerged with her cell phone. She punched a number, pressed it to her ear, and began walking up the road, her long skirt clinging to her legs. A dump truck passed, its bed full of what looked like house demolition refuse—chunks of drywall, broken bricks, splintered beams and busted up window frames. Its engine had an ugly growl. Isabella disappeared behind the truck for a moment; when she was visible again, her thin form was momentarily blurred in a cloud of exhaust fumes.
Raoul watched his daughter gesturing with her free hand, jabbing at the air with her fingers. She definitely had her mother on the phone. He had not said a word to Carol since the previous Sunday, had not even tried to call. Of course, she had not called him either. He breathed deep and slow, sniffed, wiped at his eyes with his sleeve.
"Isabella's a wise young woman, Raoul. Listen. Sometimes in marriage you just move on. You do something crazy and inexplicable, then just keep going. Take it from me, I know. You've been a zombie all week, Raoul. Some men can just walk away from their lives, but you're not one of them."
Raoul fished around in his pants pocket, found a tissue and blew his nose. He opened the driver's door.
"I need to get some air, Pete."
"Good idea. Me too."
They got out of the truck. Pete crossed the road and leaned against the Subaru. Raoul turned his back on his friend and walked over to the possum. Now he saw what his daughter saw. It was true, as Pete had said, that his shot had done damage to the animal's head, but its eyes were closed and its mouth relaxed, the image of a thing at peace. He raised his eyes and looked into the woods. Something moved and made a branch sway, a squirrel perhaps. Then there was nothing but brown and green stillness, the stunned hush of summer embodied in a mass of countless trunks and branches.
He inhaled slowly, taking in the blunt loamy scent of forest floor, the tang of pine needle. He felt a light breeze moving over his collar. After a while, it seemed like he was deep in the forest, far from any vehicle, any road.
"Papa," he heard Isabella say behind him, "Ma wants to speak with you."
How had his daughter found him? Had she followed him into the forest?
Right. He was not among the trees. He was near his truck at the side of the road, at the very place where she had sent him.
"Papa, she's waiting."
His wife was waiting, as were his daughter and his friend. Meanwhile a possum slept its last sleep at his feet, and the deep, pine-drunk woods opened its million arms. He stood his ground and sucked the moment in, gulped it down and down, into the farthest reaches of his belly.
He heard the crow call again, the second crow answer. I hear you, he thought, and took another long breath before turning and taking the phone from his daughter's hand.
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